Here I am Without You

He didn’t understand, he was right about that, she thought. To him it had to be glamorous with jewels as the commodities of her trade, all that gadding about with fancy people, seeing sights he’d not see now. There was truth to this but it was the only part he wanted to believe.

The rest of it he tried to hold at bay any way he could, sometimes blaming her. And there was good reason for that. Admitting he was not going to walk again, at least not right–never mind play his horn, dance at one a.m. with the last customer, drive like crazy along some back country road–was like admittance to hell. Well, that had already begun when he had the stroke. Forty-one, relentlessly alive and just like that, cut down by a vagrant piece of circulatory trash that got stuck in an artery. Now his legs were mostly useless for the best things. His left hand couldn’t hold his trumpet mouthpiece to lips for more than a moment if he tied it there and dictated those beautiful, once-muscle-memories of movements required for sound.

But Mirabel kept on. Of course she did, what else was she to do, watch the seconds of their lives tick on as the pantry was emptied? She’d been a jeweler by trade when they’d met–he’d been browsing for someone who became irrelevant that snowy day–and remained so. He was a musician, he had some regular gigs and even when he hit it bigger there were more bills than income at first. Her work tided them over and she kept at it. She got good, then better, and then she was managing the finest jewelry store in Detroit metro as well doing the best work around, as she’d often been told.

Now she traveled more. Okay, a lot, every month or more. She had trade shows to attend and consultations to carry out, gems with just finished settings (or the final designs to deliberate) to hand deliver so an out-of-town customer could see up close exactly what big money was paying for. A personal touch was how Mirabel preferred to do business. It cost a bit but it was worth it for connections and subsequent referrals. Success had arrived. If she had to go out of her way to keep things well oiled, she’d do it despite Hal being held hostage to the damnable wheelchair.

He understood this much: they now lived in a beautiful spacious condo with a fine river view and he had good help. Alma came to care for him every day, and she had a fair for it. She had expansive congenial feelings for him which she could dispense lavishly; she went home each night to a good humored, healthy husband.

Mirabel meanwhile speculated what a warm bed would feel like as someone sidled up close, held her all night. Those days felt over for her, to her sorrow. Not that Hal yet believed it but he was more a dreamer, not so accepting of gritty details.

“You must stay at nice places. And stay occupied,” he said. “Don’t tell me ‘no’.”

“Right, occupied by my usual historical novel or a sitcom on T.V. It’s a blast. I do find most people I meet are interesting, you know that, and thank goodness. It’s not all diamonds and rubies and money.”

“Oh, come on, there are many men in this business who’d be happy to hold your hand, your waist, then–”

“Right, those men are older by far than you and gassy and balding, or baby-faced and ambitious, or very married with two kids. And what do I care? The others circle like hawks, I know how to put them off. How many times do I have to remind you? I’ve been doing this for twenty years. I’m more likely to meet up with business women for a late dinner. But none of us love travelling. We’re flat out whipped at the end of the day so it’s no party. It’s not a great way to see the country, either. No, it’s not great fun…”

Hal grunted. “Yeah, it’s so hard to be free, on your own out there.” He turned up the music, checked out.

The anger never quite quit, it just went underground. It abated if there was something good, like his musician friends coming by for dinner and talk. Then Hal was all affable bluster as ever he’d been. He applauded his friends’ recording contracts or tours or the latest band they’d put together. Never moaned on and on that he wasn’t with them. He wouldn’t consider doing that to them or himself. They missed him. They also saw him as man of steel despite extraordinary ways with his instrument. Well, once extraordinary, once on the high road. He was a guy who could take punches over and over and still come up chirping about this surprising and wild life. How thankful he was he wasn’t a Benny who’d died of an overdose at the apex of his career, or a Margo who literally went over the edge from too many bad breaks. He’d had it pretty good since he was nineteen, overall. Now he could again read some (the stroke rattled that piece of his brain), listen to music all day, compose in his head all he wanted. Sit the terrace and breathe pungent city air without worrying, planning the next big gig. Maybe he’d take up electronic music in the end. He was working on bettering hand strength and dexterity.

And then Mirabel was one of a kind, she stepped in, took care of things, they knew how steady she’d always been. She never once hinted she’d leave him. Besides, there was now Alma with the short blonde bob and so-so jokes–she was such a cheerleader and they got on well. Maybe he would be okay.

Hal was a braver person than any of them but it was so sad to witness his demise that they couldn’t speak of it later. They put on his recordings now and then and raised a bottle.

Hal’s anger spilled over after they returned to making music and he to useless days and nights. Mirabel gave him enveloping hugs and good words then stepped aside, worked longer hours. Loneliness might bash him any time. He’d feel it burrow into his sleep and his waking when she left for a three day trip or worse, a long week. He’d think himself into exhaustion wondering what she was doing, who she was doing it with, even though nothing telegraphed that she was  disloyal. It was his humiliation, the teeth-gnashing depression that ran his mind in circles like a mad dog. But she was a person others gravitated to, that was the thing, eyes sparking with intelligence, a listening ear that put you center stage, a soft laugh that rolled into body and mind. She was attuned to life’s nuances as he was to music’s dynamics. He’d also seen her operate in a competitive, male-dominated trade that centered on obdurate, cool, magnificent gemstones with people to match. Mirabel had the right touch for so much.

But now more than ever there were things they did not know about each other.

******

When she went on work trips, after she was done for another day or evening, Mirabel wandered. If she had been successful or not, it was the same. After she window shopped and consumed a juicy steak, fish and chips or street burrito, she walked as if she was going somewhere, stride confident, footfall secure. But she was just moving fast from corner to corner, street to street, waiting for lights to change, people to pass without making eye contact, feeling breathless. Waiting for her life to stop blurring, as if she was on a runaway train and had to hang on for life.

Sometimes she ended up in a bar. The first times is was a shock, she was not a bar person, but they weren’t fancy or suspect, just any neighborhood place when regulars swiveled their heads as she slipped onto a stool. They knew she was passing through, she had the look of a visitor, hair neatly swept up at the sides neatly, her good leather bag full of things like scarves and elegant sunglasses, glossy pamphlets and who knows what else that made it bulge. She kept it close to her body.

The women who tended bar wondered if she was looking over their men but saw the plain gold band (her right hand wore a large single contemporary-set topaz) and her distant look. (Mirabel never wore her wedding diamond with two sapphires on either side when on trips, it was vintage and worth a good figure.) So they got her the simple mixed drink to get her started, minded their own business unless she stayed late for one too many. Which happened too often on trips, never at home since she rarely drank otherwise.

They’d pause at her spot, one hand on hip, brushing back unruly wisps of hair with the other. Tired out but always curious.

“BBQ sandwich? Pretzels? We’ve got a pile of garlic fries.”

“No, thank you very much.” She jiggled the ice in her glass full of rum and coke. “I suppose I need my husband… but he’s home and I’m–” she looked around as if surprised–“here.”

“Visiting someone then, huh?”

She shook her thick brown hair with white gleaming at the part and leaned into her glass. “Work only, I’m a jeweler. I’m on business.” She slurped the last of that drink.

Then they’d talk about jewelry and the bartender would show off shiny earrings or a dainty necklace from a boyfriend and ask if they were worth anything. One thing would lead to another until Mirabel would put an end to the questions with another drink, then a third and she’d start to slump. She was an amateur, they noted.

“I do miss the guy…”

“Have you called tonight to let him know you’re thinking of him?”

“Oh, no, he’s surely asleep. Alma the Nurse usually puts him to bed before she’s done for the day.”

“Oh?” Both hands on hips. Quizzical looks shared with those who’d been listening in.

“Hal’s paralyzed. Stroke.” She’d press fingers to lips–she hadn’t meant to tell these strangers, never anyone—would get up, hurry out the door unsteadily, hail a cab.

They were sure to watch her climb in okay, then regulars shook their heads, regulars frowned at their beers, muttered about fate and its misfortunes. The bartender slapped her rag hard once on the counter and got busy. Lots of pain in this place.

Back at her small, too bright room, the cheapest one available that didn’t cause worry about bedbugs or neighbors shouting all night. Why spend money where it didn’t help business, after all?

Mirabel somehow got off her clothes. Sat on the edge of her bed awhile, listening to the traffic below, the night a meaningless void. Where would she find some comfort for the night if she didn’t collapse under the influence of alcohol? Her five hundred page book or the same shows again? She stood motionless in the inadequate shower, shivering even in the hot spray. Then came the ache of longing, the gaping depths so empty where rich love had flourished. Her music man, crackling wit and loyal partner. Struck down. She wanted to hold his hands in hers, feel him squeeze hers three times like a young man: “I”, “love”, “you.” She wanted to hear that music had not been the one and only love of his life. That he still had room for her. For them. If his heart might still pull out the old joy–she could help if he’d let her–one day.  She didn’t need him to be this strong. Or this sorrowful. It would end, wouldn’t it?

The steam billowed, suffocating her. Mirabel opened her eyes, turned off the water and slid back the curtain. Grabbed a towel, readied body and mind for one more vast, chilly bed in the drone of the dark.

******

Hal watched Alma clean up the living room, her muscular arms and square hands moving with efficiency as she picked up things, dusted a little, took the tray with his dinner leftovers to the kitchen. She hummed to herself much of the time. He’d never commented despite his flinching; she was always off key and it pleased her. She spent all day taking care of him except when Mirabel could be there so he tried to be generous. To encourage her when she had trouble getting him moved, to laugh at her silly jokes, to not make more of a mess than possible.

She’d lasted ten months now. The others lasted two or four months. The stroke had terrorized him into submission close to two years ago. It was hard work to help him; he was not a short man, no longer toned, lithe, quick to respond. Alma was possessed of broad hips and shoulders and moved with such grace that he marveled at it. She had good muscle in those biceps. Mirabel though lovely, sleek, inhabited her body as if she had to command her limbs to act natural. She was confident while working, her hands so deft, but otherwise she might stumble, ram into corners, drop glasses–about which he used to tease her. Not now; he envied she could rise up, move alone.

Alma’s dishwater blond hair was spiky and bright. She wore black stretch pants and a long, loose pink shirt. Hal found her attractive if he was honest but made sure she didn’t know it. Her company was priceless, she had to know that by now. She hummed and chatted as she labored, and never lost her patience. He guessed that’s why they paid her a hefty wage. Well, mostly Mirabel’s health insurance did but Alma got bonuses. For such aid and company he’d give up other things if needed. She read murder mysteries to him. She cooked well enough. And never made a face when he needed more help in the bathroom, unlike Mirabel, whose dismay could not be hidden, nor deep frustration over her limitations.

Alma was interesting to contemplate. She’d be one of those women who stood right up in a nightclub and swayed to the jazz, arms raised, ample form mimicking the beat, high on his acrobatic trumpet. Livening up the crowd. This imagined scenario as she worked dovetailed with his sadness, shaping it into a lighter, prettier thing. She’d glance at him as if feeling his gaze, eyebrows flitting above cheery eyes as she hummed louder to make him chortle–surely she knew she couldn’t carry a tune but just didn’t care. She stirred things up a little as she watched over him. Perhaps that was her best way to help people. Distracting them from any self pity.

“Mirabel back tomorrow?” she asked since her work was done. She took off her pinafore type apron with its big bright flowers. Old fashioned, pretty, a fun touch.

“I suppose, wasn’t sure about this tran–trans–I mean, deal. I thought she’d call tonight.” His language use had returned bit by bit a year after the stroke but he still spoke with care, had to simplify some days. He gestured to the table. “Phone charged yet? She call or text?”

Alma picked it up, brought it to him. “No, Hal, nothing the last hour.” She handed it to him and then sat in the armchair across from him.”I was thinking lately. You ever consider going with her on a short trip? I know it’d be tiring but just for a change of pace.”

“No, no, that’d never work! She couldn’t help me. Even the airport would be a nightmare–can you imagine it? Everyone staring, too.”

She leaned forward, hands on knees. “They have wheelchairs there and those electric carts that whisk people about–they’re many places. You might get a portable wheelchair or find a hotel where they have extra aids.”

“Naw, not a plan of mine.”

“What if I came? I mean, a little trip, one that wouldn’t cost too much.”

Hal shook his head, glared at her. “What are you getting at?”

Puzzled, she took her time answering. “I was just thinking, if it was me, I’d want you to come along some times. See a couple of sights. Be there when I got back to the room. Share a nice dinner with me.”

“But you’re you, not Mirabel. She’s a busy pro with people to see, things to do. I doubt she thinks much about me when she’s out there. She calls out of duty. I mean, she escapes!”

“I’m busy, too. You’re not my only patient, I work at night sometimes. But if I could–”

“You work at night?” The idea seemed absurd, no one could do this another eight hours. “When do you sleep or see your husband?”

“That’s neither here or there but yes, on week-ends I do overnight work.” She sat up straight and sighed. “Hal, you are starting to look at me like your best friend or your mother or something… it’s time to get you out more, not just to the park. You should ask if you can go with her.”

His face flushed as he turned wheelchair away. “I see. So, are you done here?”

“Yep, all done. Your chili is in the frig if you want to microwave more. Let’s get you to the bathroom.”

“I can do the necessary things better now, thanks.”

“I know, but I’m here.”

“You can go, thanks, Alma.”

She came around to face him. “It was just a suggestion, Hal! It might make you both happier.”

He looked into her eyes, saw compassion. Her soft face was so close, her skin radiating a scent slightly sour but even more sweet. He looked down at his knobby knees, the near-useless hand. His wife was so far away. It almost lured him, this closeness that wasn’t even Mirabel’s.

“Maybe so.” He managed a wan smile. “I’m alright, never mind.”

Here was a woman who knew all his needs, frailties, moods. He tried to think of himself in a bland room with Mirabel in a strange place, greeting a morning together, sipping a cup of coffee, chatting softly and then he’d realize they weren’t even home with some comforts. Did he even want that? But maybe it could happen; likely not. And she’d have to leave him once more. Of course, he’d also been gone every night when she came home, for years and years. Did she feel abandoned? No, she had had two legs and arms working, a resolute mind.

He felt confused by all this, saw Alma study him.

His phone rang. Alma got her sweater, opened the front door. She almost waited to see who it was then waved at him and glided outside.

Hal looked at the caller ID, answered. “Mirabel. It’s late in Boston. All okay?”

“I miss you,” Mirabel’s voice wafted to him, weary.

She missed him. “That’s nice to hear…tell me about your day.”

“Hal, I drank too much at a corner bar and feel so lonely. When I got to my room I desperately wanted to just hold your hand. To press forehead to forehead like we used to do, remember?”

A crummy Boston dive of all things, his wife alone! But the timbre of her voice reached in. His body–all parts that still could be swept up in feelings, so many places–tingled, and his mind’s usual fog lifted just enough that he knew this was real, his wife was speaking truth.

“Are you there, Hal?”

His good hand holding the phone shook a little. “Baby, when you come home, let’s figure out how to take me with you next time, okay? I want to be with you more, hear me? I need you.”

There came the ease of relief, then he heard her snuffling. She hadn’t cried around him since the first days after his stroke. He had become the weeper too often. He put the phone to his chest, his heart as she caught her breath. Because she would. She always regained footing even when he had no purchase, himself. But he saw it was possible she could use help, too. Hal felt her head against his shoulder, her warmth melding with his, soul opening a little like a flower to the light.

 

Perils and Pleasures of This Kind Devotion

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Kayla’s life was upended when Great-Aunt Bertie fractured her second hip and stayed at the nursing home, then rehabilitation services. But that was nothing compared to the current state of matters. Fractures and rehab are manageable for stubborn old women, it turned out. After Bertie decided to move in with her often absent nephew an entire state away, Kayla felt adrift in two time zones, the past and present all at once. She could not find her bearings. She kept hearing Bertie call out for her and simultaneously had to answer a student whose voice bot more insistent.

“Why?” She had implored one more time the last week Bertie was there. “I only teach twice a week this term and we’ve always managed. We can get someone to come in when I’m not here if needed.”

Bertie sniffed, more due to great colonies of dust that refused to stop rebuilding in her home than the present topic. “Nelson has a sprawling but one-story house, as we’ve discussed, Kayla. My house is an impediment for me at this time. I ought to sell but I don’t always do what my financial adviser advises. A few months, a year at most with Nelson and I’ll be back. Likely.”

“You’re not the least convincing. It sounds as if you’re absconding and worse, maybe giving up.”

Bertie stomped her cane hard on the worn pine floorboards.

“Have you ever known me to give up a fight? You’re a fine one to make such pronouncements, taking care of me for five years now when it was supposed to be one or two at most. The left hip was almost nothing, this one a trial. But even a medium heart attack did not take me down long and when you willingly arrived, there was plenty to do as well as the completion of your degree. You stayed after your Bachelors, then got your Masters, good for you. And then remained well after I needed you, I might add. But we both know it was an auspicious arrangement.” She eased forward in her seat just a little and winced, masking discomfort with another impatient thunk with her cane’s rubberized tip.

“Yes, a perfect arrangement until now.” Kayla’s voice caught in her throat and a lightly freckled hand went to her chest, then fingered bronze-colored beads she had worn to work over an old ivory cotton sweater.

Her hands always did something, wound and unwound a strand of hair, drummed lightly on any hard surface, twiddled a pen or pencil. The rest of her was just as still as a watchful cat whose tail nonetheless twitched. But for her there was an underlying anxiety never quite quelled. Others said that, although she was reserved and to herself, she was in quiet command of students, at meetings, under pressure.  She often seemed much older than twenty-seven. They also entertained an alternative judgment: rather cold. Kayla sensed rather than heard what they said at Crane Community College as she elbowed her way around student hoards and faculty groups chattering away, making her way out and back home.

Bertie’s home, of course. Which her Great-Aunt was now abandoning. And her.

Bertie had more she might say to her Great-Niece but she knew better than to utter a tiresome homily–at any time. She was not a giver of wisdom, a corrector of wrongs, a font of inspiration. That didn’t mean she didn’t know a few worthwhile things.

Kayla had remained sheltered a bit too long, that’s what Bertie had surmised. The girl had now hidden long enough in Bertie’s comfortable home. So much education to acquire, such a varied amount of duties and care needed for the Great-Aunt and who else would do the job she did impeccably, with longstanding love? All that was true. But who cared for whom in the end? Bertie, a long retired mathematician, had been a widow for twenty-odd years before Kayla had come to live there. She’d been a boon, aided in more speedy healing of this or that health matter. But Kayla rarely if ever went out with a co-worker or  anyone else, did not attend concerts or see a movie or go on even a short day trip by herself.  They took long, dawdling drives like two  tired oldsters. When she got the college position to teach sociology, she worked and came right home. Cared for that big groaning house and Bertie, a mere (but sturdy) twig in comparison yet also admittedly creakier than desired.

Bertie, at least, had begun to yearn for a change of scenery as well as another floor plan. Enough was enough. She was entertained by the company of her mildly flamboyant nephew and his artsy wife. There weren’t such stairs there to take her down. They’d be glad to have her since they’d become the antsy retired, already weary of so-called fun travels to exotic places.

Bertie was definitely leaving, then finally gone. Who knew what the future brought? Kayla could stay as long as she liked, the bills would be dealt with, but she’d be fending for herself.

That young woman was never going to see life’s shining and confounding facets without getting out there and discovering them.

******

The first week was so terrifying Kayla thought she’d have to call in sick, but staying alone there for more than a day would only make things worse. She was used to getting up and making them a tasty breakfast, sometimes taking a tray to Bertie’s room, or setting the dining room table with a third-best, flower-strewn tablecloth. It started the day off so well. Now it started with a halt and a slump.

And then she had errands or class, then was back for lunch to check on Bertie who might be dozing over a book by a living room window or out in the garden yanking at various green or brown stems with great enthusiasm, despite weakened hips. One thing came after another, everything orderly, reliable. At night they would sit by the fireplace and read classics, poetry and sociological studies (Kayla) or natural sciences and history (Bertie) or watch a public television series.  Occasionally a movie they could agree on. Bertie would crochet badly but happily. She always said the same thing at end of day; “Sleep well, the sun rises too soon for young and old alike.”

Kayla should be exalting in this new freedom, nonetheless. Let loose of an old lady who could be cantankerous if in pain, even just slowed down, more opinionated than Kayla ever thought to be or lost in her own interesting thoughts. But Kayla forced herself out of bed and got dressed, made an ordinary if semi-palatable breakfast and went to her work and faked it the best she could.

It was true, her adult life had been Bertie, college and then teaching and that was it. It hadn’t been her intention but the longer she stayed, the better it felt and her Great-Aunt had been amenable. It puzzled and hurt her that her elder had determined to stay with the long missing Nelson. But it must make sense at age eighty-three.

People at work did ask her who she was dating or what were her plans, and she smiled enigmatically (she hoped), changed topic or said something obscure and acceptable. So when it appeared she was not in such a rush to leave her desk at end of her day two weeks in a row, she got a few looks. She had no intention to no become chatty, though Tom Heinz cast a sharp eye her way, mouth opening then shutting as he hurried on.

“So what do you have going on that you’re here late again? You and Bertie on the outs or what?” Wanda asked as she paused between coffee runs. She drank more coffee than was advisable despite living “clean”, as she put it, both utter mysteries to Kayla.

“No, just have things to catch up on, all the grading we have to get done.”

“The bane of teachers! But you usually get right out and come in early, if needed.” Wanda gulped a draft of rancid coffee from her stained mug, frimaced. “She’s okay, isn’t she? I meant, she’s all mended, right?”

“Of course! She’s just visiting for a few months, a nephew, that’s all.” It just slipped right out, such personal information! But she smiled, a no-teeth exposed sort of smile.

“Ah, I see,” Wanda said and smiled back. “Left you to your own devices, did she?” Then she wandered back to her desk humming, sipping from her bargain store mug.

Kayla shook her head–what a character she was  while also aggressively smart–and wondered what the woman could possibly know about her life. Yet it struck a chord. Wanda could be strident, quick to make inferences and blunt. They went back to work. Later, Wanda sidled by and a hand grazed Kayla’s shoulder which startled her so that she swiveled in her chair and stared at the woman in muted horror.

Wanda pulled her hand back, crossed her arms before her chest then asked, “Want to go for a drink sometime or dinner?”

“I can’t possibly, you know that, I have to get back to Bert–oh, well…” She looked up at Wanda, whose right eyebrow was raised in a starkly drawn arch. “No thanks, not tonight.” Not any night, Kayla thought as she went back to work.

On the way home she noticed streetlights were already on. Autumn had arrived in all its burning glory and faded now, and soon would come winter’s onslaught. She pictured a fire flaring and crackling in the massive fireplace, how comforting it would be again, and then sadness rose up on the crest of a ghastly wave. She had to pull over and let tears fall, but only a moment. Bertie was only visiting, she’d get tired of their fun and games soon and be back. Wouldn’t she?

She drove home and parked in the driveway. How monstrous that house was, how excessive a home for even two or three or more! How could this have escaped her so long? The many dark windows closed her out with their blank stares. She must leave on a few lights each day. She must get take-out food tomorrow. She must get a dog. No–dogs were forbidden in Bertie’s house if not professionally obedience-trained or left unattended for longer than ten minutes.

Kayla started to shake though it wasn’t yet unbearably cold. She was shaking in her heavy grey socks and worn black leather boots because her life felt like quicksand so many moments without Bertie.

And no one was there to save her. No one. Only herself. And she was trying and it was not quite enough.

******

The third time Wanda asked her out to dinner, Kayla agreed because she was so sick of eating take-out Thai and frozen chicken tenders. She just didn’t feel like making a tasty meal. But she might like eating at a restaurant. She might not fully like Wanda, but it was better than no one sitting across from you day after day, night after night.

It was a contemporary eatery where hip younger adults went to dine and drink. It had a generous vegetarian menu which Wanda liked, and meat enough for Kayla to order something. After they did so, Kayla looked around at the boisterous crowd. Most were drinking as they ate, something that seemed unnecessary. Wanda had ordered a beer and one for Kayla although she said she wasn’t much of a drinker. But this label was excellent, Wanda said, why not try it?

Maybe it would quiet the quaking in her diaphragm, Kayla thought as she watched Wanda’s burgundy red lips move rapidly. Her ears were on overload already. Why did people like this environment? What discourse could happen in such a place? It made her think of earliest college days, when too many crammed in a booth. The purpose had been less about conversation and good food and more about filling up residual emptiness, hunting for a potential partner, erasing the bad day or night before. She got that though she denied it even as she saw it.

Wanda waved a hand before her face. “Yoo hoo! You here or not? When was the last time you ate out and where did you go?”

“Oh, we never ate out. Maybe on a Sunday if we didn’t feel like cooking, but that was unusual. Let me think. Embers–for steaks, I think.” She took a sip of beer and swallowed without wincing.

Wanda grabbed her own beer. “That old staid place! It’s high time you discovered the great foodie scene here.” She held up her bottle, waited for Kayla to clink hers, then sat back. “I’ve wondered about you a long time, you know that? You’re the mystery person in our department. Everyone has a theory about you; no one knows anything. I tell them you have great depth but choose to keep it hidden.”

Kayla took a fast sip. This was not going to be about personal revelations or she was leaving. “Is that right? What makes you think so? Never trust your first impressions.” Turn it back on her and lead her astray, that was it.

“Your classes, for one thing. You must manage to make Intro to Sociology fascinating–your classes always fill up fast. And your other one–what is it?–has a waiting list this term.”

“Societal Impact on Women’s Life Goals.”

“Right, that one, sounds good. Tom said he stood at your door one time, opened it just a tad and listened to much of your lecture. He was surprised by how you interact with the students, and they, you–so easily. Impressive, he said. And seems like he’s always looking your way now.”

Kayla bristled. “I hadn’t noticed. Anyone can pop in if they just ask me. I love sociology and found I have a knack for teaching despite initial misgivings about doing it for a career.”

“What misgivings?” She leaned chin on hand, streaky blond hair swinging about her face.

“I thought I’d do research…I guess I still can.” She felt a sweep of heat up her face and then agitation came zooming back, so took a big bite of food. She’d not said even this much to a colleague before. It wasn’t their business, how she felt, what she desired, other than how it might impact department goals. It had to be the beer and convivial atmosphere. She  felt disoriented all of a sudden, needed to finish her turkey and bacon burger and leave.

“I know what you mean. We get derailed sometimes. Like me. I started in this direction later than most as my husband was ill a long time. I never got past this job so now am wondering what to aim for again or if I should just stay on…”

Kayla felt herself recoil. Boundaries, weren’t they important, anymore? But she agreed they both had experience with sickness and care taking. “I sure hope he’s better. You’ve never acted worried, just self-assured. You have a lot of great ideas and energy.”

“Yeah, I do make my presence known. ” She looked at Kayla, eyes gleaming. “He died a year before you arrived–was it really two years ago? Married four years, though.” She took a long swig.

“I am sorry, Wanda. Truly”

The burger suddenly felt like too much but she ate it, anyway. How did they get to this intimate stuff already? She never would have thought someone like Wanda had had such a terrible loss. She drummed her fingers on a thigh, sipped, surreptitiously checked her watch. So much emotion in one night.

“Thanks, it’s okay, things have a way of changing again. I’m dating a little, not from the college though. You?”

“No, not in a long time. I like being on my own. That is, I used to hang out with Bertie, spend time with a couple of her friends, all such smart ladies and gentlemen. And often have been alone. It’s okay that way for me, I am a solitary creature despite my interest in groups of social beings and their behaviors.”

“Naw, can’t be that okay.” Wanda dug into her salad. “I don’t imagine that much time alone with a very elderly lady is so good for you– you really think so?”

Kayla released a long sigh. She felt warm inside and out, no longer too empty or too full; the crowd seemed more settled, their voices a drone of contentment. It was alright being there. More than decent.

“Maybe not. I grew up in a small family, then went to college, and when Bertie asked if we could work out an arrangement I thought for two seconds and agreed. Really, she helped me. Gave me free room and board to just keep an eye on her and house matters. And she is not dull companion, believe me. It was a perfect solution for us both. Or maybe still is.”

Wanda chewed her kale, radicchio, avocado and tomatoes, looked thoughtful but waited.

“I miss her, more than I expected. She was more involved with my life than I knew. Or vice versa.”

“Well, you love her. I get it. She loves you. That’s the whole thing. Or it might be, ultimately. Worth thinking over and debating, anyway.” She shrugged luxuriously and sat back, satisfied.

Kayla leaned into the table, hands expressing her thoughts as she spoke. “But also, maybe I’m just lazy or don’t know what to do outside of work, work, work. Or my rotten anxiety curtails a life that works well and seamlessly like most seem to do. Like yours despite your challenges.”

“I seriously doubt that, all of it. You have what it takes, you just got too comfortable. You know how common it has been to do what you’ve done, right? For centuries women have taken care of others, of their elders. Not a bad thing, no. But there is more for us than that, right? And I was where you are, in a way, with my cancer-ridden husband…life just upends us and we have to redirect ourselves, figure out each next step.” She laughed as if it was some sort of epiphany. “Kayla, life never gets easier, it just gets more familiar, you know? You’ve had a door pushed open. So now what?”

Kayla narrowed her eyes at this woman with the too blonde hair and dark eyebrows, with her pronouncements, suppositions. And she felt such a wave of relief she was afraid she could faint, but sat up straighter.

“Walk through it…and maybe that’s what Bertie was offering me. Not just changing up her care plans. She was so ahead of her time, after all, a respected mathematician for forty-eight years. She knows how to be alone and how to not be alone.”

“Exactly. So make the most of this, I say! Get out more to art and history museums, films, restaurants, author readings, take a trip, go on a mountain hike! Let others become a friend, Kayla. And so you know, I can go hot and cold, I’m not all that together. But for sure you will not sink. If you think you might, give me a holler, we’ll go out for a beer and burger. Well, veggies for me.”

She winked at Kayla, which sure seemed presumptuous, as if declaring an actual possible friendship. But it was pleasant, too, Kayla thought as they paid their bill. She found herself laughing as they forged a path through sidewalk throngs to find her car window. It displayed her first parking ticket. The time had passed so quickly.

******

The house seemed to be glowing when she got home. For a minute she thought Bertie had come back without advance notice and she hurriedly put the car in the garage. But, no, the house stood empty, she could feel it’s expansive, worn elegance wanting company even as she walked toward the door. She had left a few lamps on so windows were radiant with amber light. Kayla turned the lock with her key, walked in, thought how lovely it would be to light a fire and read a few sonnets. How she might possibly swing a simple dinner for two or three colleagues around upcoming holidays.

Sidekicks: My Galloping Sister and I

Allanya, our sister Marinell (now deceased), and me, Cynthia- 2010

One more time: back in the hospital. It’s been a year spending time in one or another of them. First my oldest sister’s passing. Then I landed in two different hospitals. Next, my dear friend. Now Allanya, my last and only sister.

I sip my coffee and give her a smile. It isn’t every day I get to assist my older sister, the empress of all fundamental operations, the executive of primary and unexpected life events, the person with whom I would trust my very life when you get right down to it. I look at her length beneath the shapeless gown and try to imagine her without that defining crooked gait that barely slowed her despite years of discomfort. She is about to be given a new hip. After, I will accompany her home so I can give her a week of assistance.

When she asked me to sign her will the night before surgery it was as if my very blood stopped in my veins. I thought of our older sister, whom we just lost in April. I cannot lose this one, too, not now. I pray for an unerring, clean surgery, for a spectacular recovery.

Allanya is five years older than I am and naturally that shaped our relationship from the start. What can you do when you are doomed to not only be the baby of the family but also the third daughter and default underling to the second sister? The only logical response is to memorize the lay of the land, observe the family power structure and then take your chances navigating the maze of home life that’s revealed step by step. Soon it was apparent that I would be the one to fetch and retrieve, support and defend as required. Oh, yes, also commit petty thievery (another cinnamon roll, for example, or the National Geographic someone else was reading; a quarter or a good pen left on the table). I tried to locate clues to her intentions in order to be prepared for all circumstances. Other things might get tricky, like being left with the corner of our shared bedspread or being forgotten at the community swimming pool. (I’m near-sighted so it was a cautious, blurry trek about the huge pool.) And I, of course, was a keeper of secrets, as we all know littlest kids see and hear the most.

Yes, better to be a strong ally, to be the right hand girl. Or get creamed. A few sisterly punches or verbal blackmails straightened right out.

Now she is much older…no surprise that I am, too. But things have a way of re-balancing. After all, life brings with it not only rewards–she became a real executive director and I became a counselor and writer (another sort of keeper of secrets/pilferer of experiences)–but we also have suffered apart and together. We moved and tried out lives in different places, only to reunite over twenty years ago in the Pacific Northwest. We had lived together in the Seattle area after I exited high school (while she was a high school teacher). I knew I would be back one day as mountains, forests and sea beguiled me. I just didn’t expect it to take me so long.

When I did consider following Allanya out to Oregon, I was in exodus from what felt like the hardest half of my life–I hoped it would soon be put behind me. She offered me one of her rental houses and my relocation became immediate. And this sister–who had filled the place with all necessities and left fresh flowers on the dining room table–made the house a sheltering place. She was only a few minutes away. I recall standing in that lovely house feeling overwhelmed as warm honey-hued light burnished the space. Wondering how I deserved a sister so loving and generous. Such faith in me helped enable a new beginning.

Year after year our experiences elicited often happy, sometimes tart and tender moments; we’ve stepped forward and back in that dance that siblings choreograph. And that day in the surgery waiting room I felt I was right where I wanted to be, close at hand. Her legs, as needed. Her cheerleader, a purveyor of all things good and hopeful. For Allanya, it meant relinquishing control, not an easy thing, to say the least. For me, it meant being ready to give what was asked. It meant being love in action, just as she has been so often for me.

She waited until the pain of an awkward gait forced her to do something about it. Far too busy for years, she kept saying, to take the time to get repaired and mended properly. Now that she has, I find myself in a familiar position, back to fetching and retrieving, and aiding and abetting–but being a most willing sidekick.

After two and a half days in hospital, she is recovering from the hip replacement operation. And this time I also get to call a few of the shots. Or, so I wish.

“Slow down with that walker, you’re going to run over the dogs!” I call after her as she disappears around a corner.

Allanya listens with a nod and a smile–she is nothing if not diplomatic yet also direct–and then does as she pleases much of the time. It is not in her nature to watch life parade by. She wants to be leading any parade and then does a heck of a job of it; it’s what she knows and what her talents afford. Even if sometimes she can be blustery. Controlling. Well, we all can err on the farther side of our best nature and stubborness is in our DNA.

And so, she comes and goes, back and forth past her devoted but disabled partner who also tends to her. Allanya fusses over their dogs, gives me orders and takes breaks to read, doze or watch television but she is often in the doorway when I turn around. I get food ready and store it and shine up the kitchen, get the mail, hang out, pet, let out and bring back the doggies, do laundry, clean more, help her get ready for bed, help her with her shower, empty the portable commode, put on and take off her socks, run errands and so on. All the things we each need to do every day, life basics we tend to accomplish without much concern as long as we are able to do them. She accepts the help with good humor and a dash of her ingrained managing. I don’t stray far enough for her to get into much trouble those first five days. But I can’t make her stay on the couch, either.

She is, in fact, surprising us, feeling much better each day. I find she is already straining at the bit, acting as if healed entirely–as if she can and will commandeer her entire body’s complex operations. I suggest she have patience and slow down. No, she has to enter the kitchen and help with the meals or find her books or get her own water. She trundles from room to room, the walker sliding and thunking along the wooden floors. I try to be everywhere at once but feel I am losing ground.

“I’m good, I was their star patient, I’m quite strong,” she reminds me.

“I know, but you’re still a human.” I feel like wagging a finger in her face but control myself.

She grins at me, a broad-shouldered, white-haired imp, a woman who has overseen people and events. She is not so easily directed or distracted from her goal. Her gaze is clear as I stare back. Oh, right, I am still a bit of the little sister here, white stands in my hair or not. But I am on my feet so can and will do more. Because I do so want her to get healthy again, and safely.

Then on day four, the day before I am to leave, her body finally rebels and crashes. Energy fizzles and she is dizzy, faint, enervated. Blood pressure too low. Sweaty. Back to bed–and finally she embraces real rest.

I search her eyes. See the veil of weariness cloud them. A little fear. It has taken years to come to this point. Years of laboring, of tending to others, of living with the sort of energy that gives the word “gusto” its essence: a small force of nature. And years of chronic, even debilitating pain ignored as she has served others, her relentless spirit pushed forward by the momentum of sheer will. I get it; we’re family so share some traits. And being slowed, then stopped is uncommon.

I think of how she always wanted to be a cowgirl, how she dressed up in fringed vest and boots and a cowgirl hat. Feet set hard on the ground, legs apart, hands on hips. Dimples deepening as she smiled. How she loved horses, once lived on a ranch in California. She’d always seemed able to do whatever she wanted, to refashion a whole life, to conjur money from a mere good idea, to handle external injuries or internal losses with faith and confidence. Allanya is a mistress of reinvention; it has saved her again and again.

I pray as her eyelids lower, almost expect her to rise from the bed as if nothing has happened. But no, her body is still calling the shots so she needs to surrender, to be truly watched over. And we do. By the end of the afternoon, she is better and up again awhile–then soon to bed after dinner. I sense she will be fine but more prayer never hurt anyone. I dream of families converging, children leaving, sisters reappearing. I feel our other sister, Marinell, nearby and I know she is shaking her head as she laughs, smiling a radiant smile.

The next day, day six, I come upstairs from my basement bedroom and hear “Good morning!” ring out, so I know she is close to being back in business. I am feeling a bit tired, even cranky so take a long walk, grocery shop, pay bills. I need to write but my computer is being fixed. But we watch television shows (some I have never heard of before) until bedtime.

By the seventh day, we are working almost side by side. I take a moment to step outdoors to smell the freshening breezes, note the autumn leaves curl up on the deck around the bird bath. I return to find her nowhere around, call out her name. The echo of her voice careens up to me from far below.

She has left her walker at the top of a flight of steep, shallow stairs, has somehow made her way to her office to work on various pressing matters, I presume. She has avoided catastrophe but given me a twinge of pain in my chest as I run downstairs.

“What are you doing? Trying to create havoc?”

I find her gazing at the computer screen. It is open to Ebay. She is cheerfully eyeing turquoise jewelry, one of the interesting things she has a knack for collecting.

“No problem. The occupational therapist showed me how to do stairs. I’m fine.”

We admire jewelry and she makes a purchase. She stays longer as I work on more laundry. When she is done I follow her up the stairs with the walker-how did that get down there? did she throw it?–and find her footsteps sound.

It must be time for me to go at last.

Later I pack up, then complete chores. I find myself being inclined to stay for lunch and then dinner. There is more I can do. We three watch a reality show that veers between terrible and touching, and chat and snack. My sister’s partner says we’ve been in a girl’s club all week. We’ve talked about books and God and therapy and our children and more. I have found my rhythm within the context of theirs, and the overall peaceful atmosphere has begun to fit like a slouchy, warm sweater.

Now it is time to change gears and re-enter my separate life. I wonder how they will manage. Likely as well as before I arrived. And they have good friends who will stop by and call. Allanya will be released of her chronic pain and stand fully on her feet sooner rather than later, find more intriguing experiences, projects to spearhead, rocks to paint (another hobby), estate sales to take me to, people to help.

I imagine her back in charge as she likes to be, life realigned with healed hip, legs striding together rather than against one another. She’ll work up to a full gallop. I’ll be trying to catch up with her to share a cup of coffee, go treasure hunting or attending a chamber music or dance concert. But, Lord, thank You for this opportunity to be of simple use, to serve. For healing her so well. What a pleasure to be a sidekick, a privilege to help out my big sister when she is in need and to be assured we’ll soon be in cahoots once more.

 

Bound to Snow, Amelia

imag1330

No one else was out. It was his lucky break. All week he’d had something he’d tried to avoid. He’d felt a rumbling of imbalance before it grabbed him by the neck. He never got sick, mentally or  physically. Even if he had days, okay occasional weeks, of feeling stunned by the varieties of life’s misery, he called it a “rough patch.” Not “the blues” or “bad karma” or “the end of all good things” like his work buddy explained his depression. There was no end of things, period, or life, until it was over. And Billy was patient; if he kept enough around, almost anything got better. Or changed.

It had lasted four days, aches that made him wince and wicked tiredness that kept him home from work. Then he came back with a mind like a clear blue sky and strength returned full force. He saw on the television it had been snowing. The street view from his window confirmed it. He wasn’t surprised. The thick quietness of snow brought a smile to his pockmarked, angular face. It wasn’t blizzardy, but everyone kept to themselves when steps and car roofs were covered. Except for Billy. He’d grown up in snowdrifts and it was second nature to be right out in it. What was the town going to do, hibernate until a spring thaw?

He’d gotten dressed for a walk despite his wife, languishing in the chair as always, objecting.

“What’re you doing? You were sick yesterday and now I’m feeling it. I can’t have you relapsing and laid up again. Heavy snow.”

He’d glanced her way as he yanked on motorcycle boots. She was wrapped in the blanket he had just left, her slippered feet on the coffee table now that his empty mug and soup bowl were gone. Her hair wound down her shoulders, unkempt.  It had been unattended too long because he had been too ill to help her. Whereas she was always sick, with multiple sclerosis. Some days she could barely lift her arms, and brushing all that hair felt like trying to climb Mt. Hood, she admitted. Why not cut it?, he’d asked more than once, but she ignored him.

“I’m off to get some fresh air. I feel fine now. Anything you want?”

She’d shrugged. “More tea?”

He’d moved to the door, then paused.

“Chicken soup and tuna fish.” She sighed as though reciting the list was a chore.

He waited.

“Macaroni and cheese. Butter. More bread.”

Billy pulled his wool cap on when nothing else was noted and left.

That first step out was a swift slap in the face and he whooped loudly. The sweetness of the air was greater due to the cold. It’s whiteness illuminated the street. He felt everything got shined up when it snowed. He expected to feel even stronger after he walked the two blocks to the convenience store and back. Healing, the winter. Spring was a riot of newness that made him dizzy. Summer was too hot on his skin, but autumn was like a ride into paradise with a promise of the best to come. Winter.

Billy expected to see someone out with a dog, but the squeak of snow beneath his feet was unaccompanied. There were two snow people across the street, half-dressed, which he found funny. On the top of the hill was a snow fort about two feet tall. Abandoned snowballs. Kids were probably called in for dinner. He picked one up and threw it hard across the street. It hit a brick building, a soft thwap in the stillness. He scooped up more– it was good packing snow–and made a little ball, then tucked it in his pocket.

by Julius

The tree branches moaned and creaked. They were dressed up in white like ermine, as if to shield their bark from cutting wind. The twilit sky was hosting more galaxies. His breath singed his lungs on its way back in. Billy was glad he’d let his bread grow back, even if his wife didn’t love it. Where he came from, a man without a beard was not quite a man. He knew better but winter and beards were made for each other.

Icicles sprang out in a streetlamp’s glow like fine sharp teeth of the abominable snowman. He stood beneath a row that hung off a windowsill and had the impulse to break one off, brandish it like a sword. He reached up and couldn’t quite grab it, so jumped a couple times,  grazing the sharp tips. An old woman appeared from behind a curtain and shook her finger at him. Billy made like surrendering, hands raised palms up. She grinned at him, all six teeth showing. He slid across the street, boots slicker now. What he wouldn’t give for a sled. His beat-up old toboggan that was sold for ten bucks when his family sold the cabin twenty years ago. Or the cross country skis for distant mountain trails that he put away when his wife got sicker.

By the time he reached the second corner, Billy felt better, just as he expected. The Curb ‘n Corner was all lit up. He pushed open the door and heard the chime go off. He could see the back of the owner as she restocked down the first aisle. He found a basket and filled it with the things he needed. At the back of the store, he deliberated on root beer or ginger ale and took two bottles of the second. His wife might need these if she got sick. Before the refrigerator door slammed shut he got a root beer for himself.

“Well, well,” she said as he stood before her.

She was tall and thin like a strong reed, he thought, in that grass- green uniform. It made her eyes almost turquoise. She leaned forward, palms pressed on the beige, ink-marred surface. “Where you been lately, good-lookin’?”

He took out the groceries and passed them to her hands.

“In bed a few days. All better now.”

“I see that. You snugged up to trudge out in this? Like a polar bear, Billy. For soda and tuna? Just makes me long for a piece of that perfect Hawaiian sunshine. But I knew it would come to this mess.”

Billy chuckled. “I know, you’re too soft for it but you gotta look for the best, Amelia.”

“Your fault. You ordered it. You told me it was comin’ but I held onto hope.”

After she finished ringing him up she put hands on hips and flashed him that mile-wide smile. It had the effect of turning the grimy, dull surroundings into a place worth inhabiting. She counted his change slowly then put bills and coins into his hand with a slap.

He said nothing as he set down the money but then grabbed her fingers, pulled the snowball from his pocket and lay it in her hand. A foolish, freezing gift.

She looked aghast and then laughed, tossing it back at him, a little melting clod of white.

“You sneaky devil! I told everybody–that Billy Cook, he said last week, ‘Bound to snow, Amelia, bound to snow good‘ and they said ‘Billy Cook’s a wild man escaped from his true element and he sure knows signs of weather. Like you’re an expert.”

He made a horrified face. “They didn’t say I was a wild man, did they?”

She threw her head back and laughed, chest bouncing, florescent light bathing her face and neck as though it was tropical sun shining down on her alone.

“Yes, but Billy, they also said you was a good man, crazy good. Now get on out of here before your head swells and so I can work.”

He stood still and the words he never said wanted to come out, but he snatched a peppermint from glass ashtray and grabbed his bag.

“Say hey to Erin. And stay healthy.”

He left, chime going off, the light dimming. When he crossed to the corner and turned back she was still looking at him. He waved at her but she just stared out until he thought she couldn’t possibly see him in the thickening dark. But he felt her thoughts and his brush like wings in the night, then fly off.

The walk home was shorter, his strides longer. He didn’t have time to play. Tea had to be made. Then he’d wash Erin’s hair if she was up to it. Tomorrow, work, but he smelled new snow on the way.
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